31 July 2012

SoothSayers

by Dale C. Andrews

"Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future."
    --   Niels Hendrick David Bohrs, Danish physicist
The (doctored) display from Doc's DeLorean
    Late last month, along with several million other folks, I encountered a post on Facebook proclaiming that June 27, 2012 was, in fact, the date in the then far away future that Doc programmed into the DeLorean in the 1985 movie Back to the Future.  I immediately texted this “fact” to my elder son, Devon, who is quite the Back to the Future fan.  His disgruntled reply was immediate:  “Where is my flying car?”

     As it turns out the Facebook post was a hoax – a photoshopped version of the DeLorean screen.  In fact the actual date that Doc flew off to in the movie was October 21, 2015.  But Devon’s larger disappointed point is still valid – unless we come up with flying cars in the next three years the movie’s view of the future turns out to be definitionally anachronistic. 

    Two weeks ago I wrote about Michael S. Hart, who had the prescience to foresee a world that would embrace e-literature long before the internet or the home computer existed.  Hart’s foresight is all the more remarkable when one considers how poorly most of us perform in the prediction department. 

    A prime example of failing this challenge is the Stanley Kubrick film 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  I remember seeing this movie  for the first time in 1968 and being completely blown away.  I think it was the only movie I saw that summer and I also think I saw it seven times.  Viewed today the movie is . . . well, . . . dated.  Twelve years after Y2K we are nowhere close to Kubrick’s vision of future space travel.  In fact, we were closer in July of 1969, one year after the film premiered, when we were actually walking on the moon. 


On board the 2001 space station -- HoJo's sign at right
      Not only was Kubrick’s vision of a space station woefully out of sync with what came to pass, he couldn’t even get the restaurants right.  Remember the Howard Johnson’s “Earthlight Room” that showed up in the space station?  As of 2005 there were reportedly only five Howard Johnson restaurants left anywhere in the world, and it is completely safe to observe that the chain never reached outer space, and to predict that it almost certainly never will!

    But to my mind just about the best examples of stumbling over the future are sprinkled throughout Robert Heinlein’s classic novel The Door into Summer.  I need to note at the outset that Heinlein’s book, even with its predictive flaws, is one of my all time favorites and I re-visit it regularly. The Door into Summer was originally serialized in three issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in late 1956 and then published in hardcover in 1957.

    The novel opens in 1970 and then jumps to 2000, giving Heinlein the opportunity to prophesize about not just one, but two different future eras and us the opportunity to shake our heads as to how wrong he got it since we have now lived through both.  I read the novel for the first time in the 1960s, when I could still wonder at whether the author foresaw the 1970s and 2000s correctly.  I then re-read the book again in the 1970s, when I was able to see how the 1970s predictions didn’t work out, while still holding out hope for the 2000s.  Alas, I then re-read the novel most recently a few years ago.      From those perspectives it has been interesting to watch, over the course of a lifetime, how the novel’s view of the future vectored from reality as I caught up in time with each era portrayed  in the novel's timeline. 

    As I’ve said before, I don’t do “spoilers,” but there are still aspects of the novel that can be discussed without giving away too much.  For example, the protagonist, Dan, is an inventor of robots -- “Hired Girl” (yeah, I know, even the name alone wouldn’t work now) and “Flexible Frank” -- which, in both 1970 and 2000 perform virtually all household chores.  Never quite got there, did we?  Those inventions and many other projections concerning life in both 1970 and 2000 that did not in fact come to pass provide an interesting, if unintended, subplot to this otherwise fine little story.

     But my favorite Heinlein creation is Dan’s namesake invention:  “Drafting Dan,” a machine that can automatically create engineering draft drawings.  Drafting Dan creates these drawings using computer driven arms that draw on a drafting easel utilizing directions inputted from  (gasp) a keyboard.  The computer needed to power this invention has been shrunken to near room size by the use of super powerful new vacuum tubes.

The earliest mouse!
   So Heinlein’s prediction of the computerized future missed, among other things, the advent of computerized chips (and the attendant demise of the vacuum tube), the development of display monitors and printers, and the evolution of the mouse, which did not appear in prototype  until 1963 and which, even then, was abandoned only to be resurrected from the dead with the release of the Macintosh Lisa in 1984.

    Like most predictions that go wrong, the blame can hardly be laid solely at Heinlein's feet.  If anything has proven itself, it is the difficulty involved in figuring out what happens next. To envision the computer of the future Heinlein likely turned to those who in the 1940s and 1950s were at the forefront of the then-incipient computer industry – an industry that at the time involved figuring which of the spaghetti mess of multi-colored wires should be plugged in where..  Andrew Hamilton, a noted computer expert of the time, had the following to say in a 1949 article in Popular Mechanics hypothesizing on the future of computers:  “Where a [computer] calculator . . . [in 1949] is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh only 1½ tons.”  (“Hmmm,” we can almost hear Heinlein thinking.)  In 1957, the year that The Door into Summer was published in hard cover, the editor of business books for Prentiss-Hall had this to say:  “I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year.”  At least Heinlein saw past naysayers such as this, and boldly chose a future where computers thrived.   Other rejected paths include the prophecy of Ken Olsen, then chairman of DEC, who twenty years later, in 1977 “presciently” observed that “[t]here is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.”  And printers and copiers?  Here is IBM’s 1959 advice (to a team that later went on to found Xerox) concerning the future of the novel copying device the team was attempting to sell:  “The world potential market for copying machines is 5,000 at most.”

    Well enough of this picking on Heinlein.  In fact, we are surrounded by prophetic mistakes that rear their humorous heads in literature.  And they are not confined to technology.  I have read a number of Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford books, all set in Florida, and many dealing with Cuba.  Five years ago, when the press was telling us that Castro lay dying and would not last the month, White apparently viewed that as gospel and took what looked to be a safe leap – he submitted a new installment in the series to his publisher in which Castro was already dead.  Oops.  White now has authored several additional books in the series over the last five years, each of which treks an alternate reality from ours, a world in which Castro has indeed already departed the mortal  realm. 

    And, as illustrated by the computer quotes above, prognostication errors are not relegated solely to written fiction.  They spring up all around us.  Here is one of my favorites:  During the Civil War it is reported that the last words of General John Sedgwick as he looked out over a parapet toward the enemy lines during the battle of Spotsylvania Court House were the following:  “They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist . . . .”

30 July 2012

Brain Exercises

by Jan Grape

How do we learn? Have you ever watched babies or toddlers interact with each other? Many times it's monkey see, monkey do. They learn from each other. If one rolls a ball, the other laughs and then he gets the ball and rolls it. If one stacks one block on top of the other, then on of the other children will see that and stack one block on top of the other. Babies and little children learn from their parents and their siblings. Their teachers and friends. Babies and little children are like sponges, they soak up everything.

Guess what? Animals also learn from each other. My female cat, Nora, is the one I call the smart one. She learns something, like jumping from the floor to the big stuffed chair to the top of the bar and down onto the kitchen counter top in order to get the the sink and water faucet. Her brother, Nick, is Mr. Friendly and is somewhat like the dog, Odie in the Garfield comic strip. He goes along happily ignoring most everything, until suddenly he sees Nora doing her jumping act and then he copies her. They both love jumping to the counter to get to the kitchen sink and then try to get me to turn on the water faucet so they can drink. (I ignore them.)

As writers we read other writers and learn from them. At times we are just baby writers, we read and study and learn how to write. We can see how other writers make a character seem real and intriguing. We see how someone plots and we learn how to do the same. We learn from someone how to build tension. We read a book by someone we think is an excellent writer and we learn from them. We go "wow" I never thought of that. Or how in the heck did they do that? We learn how to set the scene, how to write realistic dialog. We learn how to end chapters. We learn how to get through the middle part of the book. We learn how to bring everything to a climatic end and bring it all to a closure.

I don't mean we copy from them. But we can analyze other's work and learn. And then we practice, practice, practice. Yes, you can learn how to write better by practice writing. You can take a published book and actually set out to copy it on paper word for word. I hope you've picked up and are using a really good book. Use one that you know has won an Edgar or a Shamus award if you're interested in writing mysteries or thrillers. This exercise is for practice, not to plagiarize someone.

You begin copying the first line, the first paragraph, and the first page. Pay attention as you copy. How did the author grab your attention? If that book doesn't grab you on the first page. Put that book down and pick up another one. As a retired book seller I learned just how important that first page is because a person who picks up your book just might not buy that book if you lose them on the first page.

Take Stieg Larrson's, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. Chapter one begins and reads as follows:
Dr. Jonasson was woken by a nurse five minutes before the helicopter was expected to land. It was just before 1:30 in the morning.

Tell me that doesn't grab your attention. Who is this doctor? Where is he that a helicopter is on its way? And who do you think might be in the helicopter? Man, woman or child? Is the doctor in the military because a helicopter is expected to land in five minutes. Or could he be on an aircraft carrier bringing a wounded soldier? Is the doctor a good guy or a bad guy? Is the incoming patient a good guy or a bad guy? We don't know yet, but I can almost guarantee that you're going to want to read at least a little more to see what is going on.

I chose the next example just to show how after a very intriguing opening scene, and then when you get only a few pages into the story, how you are hooked and grabbed once again.  Look at this paragraph on Page 6 of Lee Child's book, Echo Burning. 

Seven thirty-nine, more than three hundred miles to the north and east, Jack Reacher climbed out of his motel room window. One minute earlier, he had been in the bathroom, brushing his teeth. One minute before that, he had opened the door of his room to check the morning temperature. He had left it open, and the closet just inside the entrance passageway was faced with a mirrored glass, and there was a shaving mirror in the bathroom on a cantilevered arm, and by a freak of optical chance he caught sight of four men getting out of a car and walking toward the motel office. Pure luck, but a guy as vigilant as Jack Reacher gets lucky more times than the average.

A big wow. Five sentences in that paragraph but what a wealth of information here. A man, a vigilant man, named Jack Reacher is running from someone. There's a brief description of the motel room...can't you just see it? The mirrored glass on the closet door? The shaving mirror in the bathroom on a cantilevered arm? How can you not keep reading?

I honestly think good writing is a talent but great writing takes some effort on your part. And if you learn from other outstanding writers you almost have to learn to be a better writer.

Don't think there's anything wrong in copying another's writing. You're only doing this as a learning experience, a writing exercise. Like I said at the beginning, we learn from each other. Even as a baby. Even as one animal or bird learns from their parent. We can learn. And if you're going to learn to be a better writer, then copy from the best. Learn from the award winners or the best-selling authors. But strive to be a better writer. You'll be glad you did and so will your readers.

29 July 2012

Now That Is Funny

by Louis Willis

During the first week and half of July, the temperature here in Knoxville ranged from 95 to 100 degrees. My air condition system quit at the beginning of the heat wave, and the temperature in my house climbed to over 90 degrees. All I could do was sit in front of my 20 inch fan, watch TV, and think about a subject for my post this month. I decided to comb my local and online newspapers for funny stories about the bizarre behavior of us humans.

Nudity Prohibited
A guy here in Knoxville did chores in his house and yard buck naked until he was arrested for indecent exposure. He has lived in the neighborhood for over 10 years and during that time has embarrassed his neighbors as he traipsed about his property in the nude. He rode his lawn mower naked while mowing his lawn. Although the neighbors called the sheriff’s office many times, the deputies weren’t able to catch him until a neighbor recently saw him using a chain saw to cut up the branches of a toppled tree while naked and immediately called the sheriff’s office. A deputy arrived just as the guy ran into the house and caught him before he could put on his clothes. Being arrested probably won’t stop him from practicing his constitutional right to go naked on his property.

Butt Enhancement
You all probably read this story in the NY Times. A woman in Georgia visited several cities and set up a pseudo doctor’s office in hotel rooms. Her customers were people wanting big rear ends. She would inject their buttocks with commercial silicone and use glue and cotton balls to prevent leakage. I wonder whose intelligence is the more questionable: the pseudo-doctor who thought she could get away with practicing medicine without a license, or her customers who were stupid enough to go to her for buttock enlargement? 

Hooray For The Bear
With nothing else to do, and sitting in the cool of my new air condition system on July 14 about 9 in the evening, I watched a reality show for the first and probably last time. The show was called “Stupid Daredevil Stunts.” The scene that caught my attention involved a big black bear and a bear trainer. The bear was in an enclosure in a nature reserve, and when the trainer entered the enclosure, that bear stood up on its hind legs as if to challenge him. The trainer picked up a stick and started hitting it on the head and nose. Well, sir, that bear knocked him down and started smelling and pawing him. Outside the enclosure, the trainer’s helper tried to call the bear away: “here chubby, here chubby.” 

That bear ignored him, probably because his name wasn’t “chubby.” Anyway, the trainer played dead and after a little more smelling and pawing, that bear walked away. I imagine the bear was thinking: “if I kill this fool, that other fool will call those idiots with guns, and they’ll come and kill me. They ain’t gonna listen to my self defense argument that I was just standing my ground. I just better get the hell away from here.” 

Update
As you all know, I’ve been keeping up with the case of the three men who were tried, convicted, and sentenced for the carjacking, torture, and killing of a young couple. The original trial judge, Judge P, admitted using pain pills and engaging in other criminal activities during the trials of the three men. He was replaced by Judge G, who ordered new trials without holding hearings on whether Judge P’s behavior caused any errors in the cases. The DA is appealing Judge G’s granting of new trials. Recently one of the defendants decided to take matters into his own hands. He filed a motion invoking his constitutional right to a speedy trial. 
John Hancock Signs Constitution

Like a lot of folks, I don’t think any one of the murderers should get a second chance to prove his non-innocence.


28 July 2012

Remembering Anne Frank


by Elizabeth Zelvin

We had some Dutch friends visiting this summer. Thinking about Amsterdam, where we had a wonderful time visiting them in 2003, always makes me think about Anne Frank.

Is there anybody who doesn’t know who Anne Frank was? A young German Jewish girl living in Amsterdam during World War II whose family was forced into hiding for two years before they were betrayed to the Nazis, Anne became a heroine and an archetypal figure when her diary was found and published after the war.  If she had been Catholic instead of Jewish, she might have been considered a saint. But what I think inspires us about Anne and endears her to us more than sixty-five years after her death in a concentration camp at the age of 15 is not her suffering but the survival of the unquenchable spirit her diary revealed.

I read The Diary of a Young Girl at the age of 11, not long after it was first published in English. I consider it one of the books that made me a writer. I started a diary of my own modeled on hers, learning from Anne to examine and reveal my emotions and to observe and record the nuances of relationships—my own and those around me—to the best of my ability.  Like Anne, I was a Jewish girl living a secular life in the diverse society of a big, modern city. It would have been unimaginably shocking to me, as it was to her, to find myself singled out, forbidden such everyday privileges as going to a public swimming pool, shunned by friends and neighbors, and finally in danger of my life. Her unfolding sexuality with all its ambiguity made me more aware of my own. Her quarrels with her older sister didn’t seem so different from mine. Yet Anne had to paint her emotional life from such a limited palette, within the confines of such a small frame, and with an underlayer of constant fear.

I’d like to say that at 11 or 12, reading about Anne made me realize how lucky I was, but if I had that much depth in early adolescence, I certainly don’t remember it. I do know that Anne seemed very real to me. I was a constant reader at that age, and the people I found in books, especially other girls, did feel real to me: Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon, Jo March and her sisters and all of Louisa May Alcott’s other girls. The shocker was that Anne Frank was not a work of fiction. She really did live and die.

The house in Amsterdam where Anne and her family hid is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Amsterdam. I made my own reluctant pilgrimage to the Anne Frank House during our Dutch visit. As an American Jew who was too young to have experienced the full horror of the Holocaust, I didn’t know how I’d feel. My parents had both been in America for almost forty years by the time of World War II but certainly knew people who were lost. They tried to instill in me a sense of how fragile and terrifying being Jewish could be. But it’s hard to pass fear and horror on from one generation to the next, especially when a child experiences so many other cultural influences. I have always avoided the most graphic depictions of the Holocaust. On the one hand, I was afraid I’d find Anne’s Secret Annex too upsetting. And on the other, I feared I might not feel enough.

I needn’t have worried about feeling nothing. Tears streamed down my face for the whole hour or so we were there. The Secret Annex was bigger than I expected: I had pictured a tiny space like a 17th century priest hole. In fact, it was more like a New York apartment—except that two families shared it and they could never go out or even be seen at the windows. The horror was not in the confinement, but in how vividly being there brought Anne’s reality home to me—not real like a beloved character in fiction, but real like me.

Dramatizations of Anne’s story tend to end on the high note epitomized by the best known line from her diary: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” We would like to believe that Anne was able to hold onto that belief in the nightmare of Bergen-Belsen. But what has haunted me most since my visit to Amsterdam is a glimpse of the terrible reality through a recording in the voice of a non-Jewish friend of Anne’s (in Dutch, with a projected translation into English). She recounts how she made her way to the camp and talked to Anne through the wall, though they couldn’t see each other. Anne was starving. The friend threw a loaf of bread over the wall to her. But a woman snatched the bread and ran away. The friend tells us she could hear Anne crying.

That’s what really happened to this lovely teenage girl, and it’s hard to find a perspective on it that offers any comfort. Anne died of typhus a month before the liberation of the Nazi death camps. But more than 30 million copies of her diary have been sold, and almost a million visitors a year make a pilgrimage to the Secret Annex to bear witness to her story.


27 July 2012

Erma Between Haboobs

By Dixon Hill

I’m not sure how it happened. 


 But, somewhere between ending my career as a steely-eyed Special Forces sergeant, and beginning a career in writing, I seem to have turned into Erma Bombeck.

 Maybe it’s the wife and kids — you know: family life. Our cats and kittens definitely figure in too. As does the cigar store where I work part-time, the kids in my Sunday school class, and my battle to coerce our front yard into growing grass instead of baked dirt. Each seems to conspire with the others, to beat me into the shape of a male-version Erma Bombeck. (Well, assuming ol’ Erma smoked large cigars, wore a beard and — If you can believe what my wife says about me! — scratched her crotch a lot.)

The late, great Erma Bombeck
 Now I'm sure Ms. Bombeck never did these things.  But, some days, even I seem to be inadvertently climbing on the Erma band wagon.

 Take last night, for instance.

 Well . . . actually, first I’ll have to explain about the “Cat Bathroom.” 


 We have three grown cats and two kittens in the house. Two of the grown cats are Frisky, my daughter’s cat, and James Bond Jr., my son’s cat. Frisky and James are sisters (that’s right—James Bond is a female cat). The other adult cat, a male named Sandman, is Frisky’s son from a previous litter, while the two kittens (male and female each) are the last hold-outs from her most recent litter.

 Now . . .  long ago, James Bond noticed that humans used the bathroom for certain non-washing functions. Consequently, she tried to follow suit. Since two attempts at using the toilet ended up getting her wet, she shifted fire and started doing her business in the bathtub. Not something we welcomed. Our house has three bathrooms in it, however. So, we learned to keep the doors to the master bath and hallway bathroom closed at all times, while leaving the door to the small half-bath at the back of the house wide open.

 Since this postage stamp sized bathroom has only a sink and commode, we closed the commode lid and added a cat box — and James was happy; he could do his business in a bathroom, just like a human, but didn’t have to chance falling into the toilet. After some discussion with my wife, I agreed (my wife claims “agreed” should be amended to “grudgingly admitted”) that balancing the sandbox atop the toilet was probably tantamount to tempting fate. Thus, the sandbox wound up on the floor. 

James did not resent this.

 The two new kittens have changed the dynamics of the cats’ ablution practices, however. And, this, James clearly does resent.

 The two adult sister cats haven’t been getting along very well since Frisky started having kittens. The kittens don’t seem to realize this, however, and they keep trying to play with their aunt – which makes her hiss and often earns the nearest kitten a set of boxed ears.

 This, of course, does not deter the kittens.

 Further, in their youthful exuberance, they evidently decided that Aunt James’ toilet setup was really cool. Consequently, they tended to do their business in her box. After a lot of cat screaming, and much struggle, and some quite ridiculous carting of kittens from James’ cat box, down the short hall to the utility room, where they could use Frisky’s much larger box, we finally surrendered to nature and installed additional boxes in what has now come to be called “The Cat Bathroom.”

 While James the dowager duchess still prefers to perform her daily constitutionals in private, the kittens also use the Cat Bathroom — when their aunt isn’t looking. (Trust me: you need to know this.)

 Steer Manure Between The Dust 


 So, last night, my 9-year-old son, Quentin, and I were spreading steer manure across the front lawn because the city would really like to see some grass out there.

 In fact, the city wrote me a letter to that effect, which I found most depressing, because — until my mom started going downhill, and I had to spend so much time at my parents’ house (now my dad’s house) — I’d actually had a pretty nice lawn going. All the bald spots were filled in, and nary a weed dared raise its head. The dark green grass was thick, soft against the bottoms of bare feet, and the trunk of our orange tree was painted bright white.

 Now, however, the city letter reminded me that “…bare dirt is not considered desert landscaping in the city of Scottsdale.” I know this fact, of course, and have never mentioned to city officials that — though I grew up here in the Sonoran Desert, and have hiked and camped throughout untold miles of its most remote terrain — I have never in my travels crossed a single patch of natural desert in which the scorched ground was covered with plastic sheeting beneath a thin layer of gravel (this being the city’s definition of “desert landscaping”). Nope! Not gonna mention it!

 So . . . Since Scott’s Turf Builder, grass seed and several 97¢ bags of steer manure are cheaper than plastic sheets and tons of gravel: Last night, my son and I were spreading steer manure across the lawn, between dust storms that blew in from the desert south of us.

 These dust storms, sometimes followed by rain, are blown up by the Monsoons, created when seasonal wind patterns change, which drags cool moist air across the hot desert. The result is high wind, high humidity (in desert terms), and often some flash flooding.  And — just a note! — though I was rated at an 8th Grade level in reading, writing and speaking Modern Standard Arabic, as well as the Egyptian Dialect, on multiple occasions in the past, I have yet to meet a native English speaker who calls our local dust storms “Haboobs” (which, technically, I believe, should probably be more correctly transliterated as: “Hibub”) — with the exception of newscasters who’ve never seen a dust storm before, and those who garner their vocabulary from such inexperienced sources. In fact, I asked one of my Arabic friends, who runs a local Indian Jewelry store here in town, what he thought of the term, and he responded: “What am I, an idiot? I call them dust storms. What do these people want? Next, we start calling eggs ‘beydah’ because that is what we call them in Egypt.”

 So . . . anyway . . . we’re spreading steer manure, which means my son, Quentin, is wearing a layer of manure from head to foot. And, naturally, he needs to go to the bathroom. I grab the hose and hit him with a high-pressure stream as he strips off his shirt and pants, still standing on the lawn because I paid 97¢ a bag for that stuff he’s wearing. Then I move him to the porch and hose off his underwear and shoes.

 All washed off, he drops his shoes, preparing to make a dash for the bathroom. And my 17-year-old daughter comes home from her boyfriend’s house.

 Enter My Daughter 


 Now, my daughter’s bladder is 17 years old, and that bladder has learned to detect its surroundings. If that bladder isn’t in a safe location, such as our home bathroom, or the bathroom of a girl friend’s house, it DOES NOT empty!

 And, over 17 years, that bladder has learned how STORE, buddy! Whenever she comes home, my daughter makes a mad dash for the bathroom. And she’s in there so long, we’re clearly talking multi-gallon-capacity. Contrary to what you may be envisioning, however, my daughter is very thin and quite petite. In fact, when I look at her, I sometimes think: Good Lord! That girl must be 90% bladder.

 And now, my daughter comes tearing up the front walk, repeatedly whispering her home-coming mantra: “Gotta pee, gotta pee, gotta pee.” She shoots past us and slams the front door behind her. 

And my 9-year-old son looks at me in horror. Because, his legs are crossed, but he knows: Our master bathroom has a plumbing problem that placed it off-limits until the plumber can get out the next day.

 I give his shoulder a fatherly squeeze. “It’s okay, little buddy. You can use the Cat Bathroom.”

 He shakes his head, eyes huge. “I’ll never make it past the cat boxes! There’s too many!” 

“You can do it. The boxes don’t touch each other; there’s a few inches between them. You can make it, if you stay on your tip-toes.”

 He shakes his head. “No way! I’ll never make it.”

 I hesitate for a moment, thinking I might need to go move cat boxes out of his path. But, the next dust storm is boiling in fast. I can see the black night sky to the south being eaten by a brown, amorphous shape glowing in reflected city lights. I’ve got to finish spreading the manure, and get everything watered in, before it gets here. Otherwise, 97¢ a bag, plus Scott’s Turf Builder and grass seed is going to get picked up and carried away, spread across 20 miles down-wind. But, my son needs assistance, guidance, leadership — outside the box problem-solving.

 Quickly stooping, I snatch up one of his hosed-off shoes. Shaking out as much water as I can, I hand it to him. “Here. If you can’t make it, and have to use a cat box, dig with the shoe instead of your bare hand.” 

He grabs it. “Great idea!” Then runs inside.

 And that’s when it hit me: I’ve turned into a cigar-smoking version of Erma Bombeck.

 See ya’ in two weeks! (Maybe with something to say about James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce.”

Quentin and me, after a dust storm in 2011 (He had a shower before the pic was taken.  I'm still covered in gray dust.)
 --Dix

26 July 2012

Poetry Words


by Deborah Elliott-Upton


A few years ago, a poet literally gave me a box of words. He said, "These are meant to be for fun, but you will find they can also be taken very seriously, so be careful."

The box holds magnetic words that you can place on a magnetic board (or the side of a refrigerator) to "compose" sentences or haiku or really anything your heart desires.



I love to reach in a pick a word. I never know what I will find, so it is a bit like opening an unexpected gift every time.

Trying my hand at poetry is fun, but it isn't where my passion is best expressed. The words I use usually lead to a mystery, but I have come to the conclusion they certainly did not have to ... it is the choice of the person holding the word to decide what it becomes.

In the above photo, which words did your eye immediately choose? Mine saw think, watch, men and girl.

My imagination thought of a man thinking about watching a girl. Sounds like a romance story? Not in my scenario.

I'm going to a dark place where a man has been thinking about a girl so much he has been following her -- in other words --stalking her and that usually doesn't end well.

Words are fun to play around with -- but be careful: they can be taken very seriously, too.




25 July 2012

Summer Love

by Robert Lopresti

I have to confess it.  I'm not ashamed.  And don't worry about my wife finding out; she is already well aware.

I seem to be in love.  Head over heels in that deep, crazy, stage of infatuation in which you want to spend all your time with your beloved, in which characteristics even you can see are imperfections still seem so charming you don't know why everyone doesn't feel the same awed delight as you.

As you may have guessed, the objection of my affection is a novel.  Or rather, it may be a novel when it grows up.  Right now it is about 12,000 words of narrative, getting a little longer every day.  I'm writing as fast as I can, not worrying about editing, re-reading, or pieces that don't fit together, because I want to get as much done as possible in this first rush of heady joy.

Maybe in a month or two I'll be sitting in a bar wondering what I ever saw with this evil soul-destroying monster who sucked up my summer.  Or maybe this will be a long-term relationship. No way to know. yet.  But I have gone in with my starry eyes open and we will whether we end up signing our names at the publisher's office, or I wind up once again with a fat reject file and a broken heart.

Win or lose, I know we need to spend some time alone.  So if you'll excuse me....

24 July 2012

Forty Whacks

by David Dean

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Just about everyone is familiar with that iconic verse, even if they are not familiar with the infamous case from which it springs.  The average person is usually surprised to learn that the axe-wielding Lizzie was found not guilty of the murders of her father and step-mother.  Why then, those same people might ask, does that danged poem hang on so?  Good question, which unlike the case itself, has a fairly easy and clear answer--everybody thought she was guilty.  Well, maybe not everybody, but just about.  She did have her defenders during her trial, and she has a vast horde of them today.  There are many websites and books dedicated to clearing her name, just as the jury cleared her of any wrong-doing.

There are parallel cases even today: The O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony murder cases spring to mind.  Not guilty?  Most folks don't think so and never will.  People in Lizzie's time felt the same about her.  When you know the facts of her case it is difficult to rule her out...but not impossible, hence the verdict.  Here are the facts in brief: On August 4, 1892, Andrew Borden of Fall River, Massachusetts, father of Lizzie, 32, and Emma, 41, (spinsters according to the times) arrived home from his business rounds sometime close to 10:45am to take a rest.  The weather was brutally hot and it would appear that he lay down on a settee in the living room to nap.  He would not be getting up.  The maid (Irish, of course), Bridget Sullivan, was also lying down in her room upstairs when she heard Lizzie calling her to say that her father had been killed.  She stated that this was around 11:00am. 

Andrew Borden's Death Scene
 It is worth noting, that the entire household had been down with food poisoning the previous day, which may explain the need for rest in the Borden home.  Strangely, the fear of being poisoned had arisen in the days before the murders and created such paranoia that the Bordens had had some of their food tested.  The results were negative.  Other than the fact that Andrew was not the most popular figure in town, it is not clear why or how the Borden clan arrived at their suspicions.

In any event, Andrew was indeed murdered.  The number of whacks he had received fell well short of the infamous forty-one, but were more than sufficient at ten, or eleven, having been applied to the head.  The wounds appeared to have been made with an axe.  The police were summoned.  After their arrival, darlin' Bridget went in search of her mistress, Abby Borden, whom no one else seems to have missed up to this point...and found her in the upstairs guest room.  She was in a kneeling position between the bed and the wall, her face to the floor, her skull caved in.  It was estimated that she had received nineteen blows to the back of her head by an instrument similar to, or identical with, the one used on her husband.  A search ensued for evidence.

Abby Borden's Death Scene

All that was found of consequence was a hatchet with a broken handle.  This was in the basement.  There would later be conflicting testimony on whether the remainder of the handle was, or was not, discovered.  There were no blood stains evident on it.  Strangely, the police made a conscious decision not to dust the hatchet for fingerprints.  Forensics were just beginning to be used by police in the 1890's and trust in these new methods was not necessarily widespread.  Unfortunately in this case, this potentially valuable piece of evidence was left unprocessed.

On the day of the double murders, the only persons at home in the Borden household were the victims, Lizzie, and Bridget.  Emma was off visiting some friends in the country.  Lizzie would later testify that she had been out in the barn just prior to coming in and discovering her father's much-abused corpse.  According to her, there were some lead fishing sinkers stored in the loft that she wished to locate--this is Lizzie's testimony.  Bridget was supposed to be cleaning windows on that hot day, but had lain down to rest as previously mentioned.  There were no blood stains on the clothing of either woman.  Coincidentally, a few days later, Lizzie would be seen burning a relatively new blue dress in the kitchen stove.  She testified that the dress had got paint on it from some newly-painted baseboards and was ruined.  This was not the dress she had been wearing upon the arrival of the police.

That is the bare-bones of the crime scene. I'm not going to dwell on all the potentially relevant details as most are a matter of interpretation and debate, and there are a number of well-researched books on the subject available.  Instead, I will turn to a brief description of the dynamics underpinning the Borden household in the days prior to the murders: In a nutshell, no one was happy.  Abby, who was Lizzie and Emma's stepmother, was not popular with the girls, especially Lizzie.  In fact, about six years prior to the fateful day, Lizzie had quit calling her mother (she had been the mother figure in her life since the age of three) and began to refer to her as Mrs. Borden.  It is not recorded why.  Their father, Andrew, was a notorious skinflint who spent as little as possible on the home they all lived in.  In spite of the fact that they were quite well off, they had no electricity or indoor plumbing, having to dump their 'night soil' in the back yard each day.  A running dispute had arisen in recent times over the distribution of property and monies, both sisters demanding what they felt was their due.  Also, an illegitimate son of Andrew's had attempted a shake-down of the old man just days out from the tragedy.  He was not successful.  Did I mention that no one was happy?  On top of all this was the family's shared concern over poisoning.  Could it get any worse?  Yes.  According to Liz, her father beheaded all her pet pigeons that she kept in the barn.  He was concerned, it seems, that they were attracting curious neighborhood children who might cause damage or be hurt in the disused building.  Right...Murder, anyone?

So what's the upshot of all this?  Not guilty.  Lizzie was acquitted less than a year later, June 20, 1893 to be exact, after only one and half hours of deliberation.  In modern terms it's not too hard to understand why--there was virtually no physical evidence.  Circumstantial evidence is another thing altogether.  There was some of that, but the jury chose to give it scant weight.  I think she would have been given the same result if it were tried today.  Recent verdicts would seem to indicate that juries don't want the moral burden inherent in circumstantial cases.  It was also difficult for the all-male jurors of the Victorian era to envision young ladies of the proper class committing heinous crimes.  It just wasn't done.  Unthinkable.

I'm thinking it's thinkable.  How about you?  With a verdict of not guilty, the slayings remain officially unsolved, as are the Simpson and Casey murders.  That does not mean that we don't form our own opinions, whether rightly or wrongly we may never know.  It's an interesting, if ultimately futile, exercise to think of what modern investigative techniques might have been able to do with the Borden crime scene.  There has been much speculation over the years as to what really did happen August 4th, 1892, including the tantalizing theory that Lizzie committed the murders in the buff.  The picture my mind conjures of the rather formidable Lizzie (see photo) creepy-crawling through that dark, narrow-roomed, stuffy Victorian home in her birthday suit is mind-jarringly terrifying.  Can you imagine the horror of the last thing you see in this world being your naked, adult child swinging a hatchet down onto your head?

The debate over the Borden case goes on, and probably will for some time to come.  It is possible that it may yet be solved.  Patricia Cornwell, famous writer of mystery novels, as well as a forensic pathologist, claims to have solved the Ripper murders of London.  She makes this claim in her book, "Portrait Of A Killer--Jack The Ripper Case Closed," setting forth a very intelligent investigation into the available evidence and arriving at a very convincing conclusion with the use of DNA.  Certainly a surprising one for me.  Though the case she puts forth can only be tested so far, it is the most compelling one I've read.  It's well worth a look if you're interested.  Perhaps she'll move on to the Borden case.  Maybe Lizzie really is innocent, or at least, not guilty.  Who knows?  Stranger things have happened--the actress, Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched), who played Lizzie in a made-for-TV-film, turned out to be actually related to her.  She did not know this at the time of the filming, and it was only discovered after her death by someone doing genetic research on Lizzie.  The doctor who did the autopsies on Andrew and Abby had to be sued to return their heads.  This was only accomplished after their funerals; the heads being buried atop the caskets in separate boxes later.  I did say stranger, didn't I?

Well, what say you?  Lizzie, or nay?  It could have been the illegitimate son, though he was never considered a serious suspect at the time.  He certainly had both a beef (his unacknowledged status) and a motive (money). What about dear Bridget?  She was supposed to be washing windows, not laying about in her room.  She wasn't too happy about that assignment.  Maybe she was very unhappy about it.  The Bordens couldn't have been easy to work for, I'm thinking.  Who's to say Emma couldn't have ridden in from her friend's home and committed the murders and returned the way she came.  Especially if she was in cahoots with Lizzie, the look-out, in the barn. Was the only thing that saved Bridget the fact that she didn't rise to investigate any strange sounds in the house?  Was she asleep?  She doesn't say so.  Was she an accomplice?  It would have been instructive, perhaps, for someone to have looked into her finances after the murders.

It was a long time ago...but it could have been yesterday--we see similar crimes far too often.  What do you think?  Did Lizzie give those infamous whacks?

23 July 2012

My Friend Gwen (AKA Gary, AKA Faith)

Gwendolyn Faith Hunter Now
by Fran Rizer

A couple of posts ago, I expounded on pen names with primary emphasis on pseudonyms themselves.  Just as interesting as the fictitious names used by some writers of fiction is the WHY of the pseudonyms.

In Victorian times, females wrote under male names because of ideas about appropriate activities for women. More recently, Jeanne Rowling published under J. K. Rowling because her editor thought boys would be more likely to read books they thought were written by a man. Stephen King published under a pen name because he wrote too quickly for his publisher's concept of how often he should be published. Why has the blonde author pictured to the right been published under three different names?  I'm going to tell you, but first, the backstory.

A few years ago, I was leaving B&N one evening when I noticed a well-dressed lady sitting at a small table with books stacked on it.  Being my usual nosy self, I stopped to talk with her, and since her books were paperback, I bought a couple.  At that time, she was signing books in her Rhea Lynch series published by Mira Books.  I learned later that she'd already had a number of mystery/thrillers published both in the USA and abroad.  Her name was Gwen Hunter.

The story of how  Gwen first published mysteries sounds like a fairy tale. Gwen had known she wanted to write way back in tenth grade, but she played it safe and earned a degree in the health field. She met Officer Gary Leveille in the ER while working.  With his experience in law enforcement and Gwen's writing ability, they collaborated on two police procedurals under the pen name Gary Hunter.  Okay, I know you're wondering, "What's so fairy tale about that?

Thse Second Gary Hunter
The fairy tale part comes when they sent their first manuscript directly to publishers since they had no agent.  This was before electronic submissions, so it was hard copy.   Here's the fairy tale fantasy part of the story--the book was picked up out of the slush pile and published by Warner Books!

When I met Gwen that night in B&N, she was writing under the name most folks called her--Gwen Hunter.  She'd already published the DeLande Saga series--three books that had been translated into several languages and published worldwide.  She was now signing Rhea Lynch books--a thriller series about a small town female physician.


 Gwen Not Long After I Met Her
Gwen and I became friends, and she mentored me a lot about writing and being published. I learned from her when I attended seminars and festivals where she spoke as well as personally when I asked questions in person or by email.  She grew up in the Louisiana Bayou country but now lives in Rock Hill, SC, only an hour or so from my home in Columbia. 

Some of what I learned from Gwen:

Most beginners start their stories too soon. She threw away the first ten pages of the first manuscript I showed her. I took her words to heart almost to the extreme as I now try to murder someone in the first few pages.

If backstory is necesssary, spread it throughout instead of writing "info dumps."

Name characters carefully.  Unless writing about identical twins who may have been named in rhyming or an alliterative manner intentionally, use  distinctive names that won't be confused. 

When paranormal stories began growing in popularity, Gwen wanted to try her hand (actually her computer) at writing  post-apocalyptical dark fantasy. For personal and professional reasons, she didn't want to write these under the same name as her thrillers.  She chose to use her middle name and became Faith Hunter when she wrote the three novels in the Rogue Mage series and future paranormal. 



The Newest Jane Yellowrock
Signings were a hoot during this time.  Since both the thrillers and the Mage books were selling, she appeared at first as well-dressed, professional-looking Gwen Hunter, then appeared later in the day as Faith Hunter, who had a gypsy flair about her with long wigs, colorful floor-length skirts, and lots of jewelry.  She fooled  a lot of people who didn't realize the two Hunter writers were both the same lady.

Although she wrote several paranormals and developed a role-playing game, when Faith really hit the big-time with paranormal was when she began the Jane Yellowrock series.  Jane is a shape-shifting skinwalker and vampire hunter. Faith Hunter has made the New York Times Bestseller List with Jane Yellowrock, and she has shed her double identity.  Thriller fans still know her as Gwen while paranormal fans know her as Faith, but we all know she's the same extremely talented writer.

Faith has the same urge to assist beginning writers that she had as Gwen. When I asked her what I could do for her since she'd been so helpful to me, she said, "Pay it forward."   She's a founding member of the blog www.http,MagicalWords.net   For more info about Gary, Gwen, Faith, see www.http.FaithHunter.net, and check the Internet for additional listings and Wikipedia.

Until we meet again. . .take care of YOU.

22 July 2012

Professional Tips– Microsoft Word Chapters

Microsoft Wordby Leigh Lundin

Last week, I promised to show you how to create self-updating chapters. We're going to do much more than that today. No one's ever accused Microsoft of being user-friendly, so let's get started.

Stylin'

You've probably heard of styles and style sheets. If you're a writer and especially if you write novels, learning how to use them saves you time and effort in the long run.

Why? Why not select bold and italic as I've always done? And selecting double-space isn't so difficult, is it?

Because, Grasshopper, we'll do much more than that, and if you save them in a template (.dot or .dotx) then you don't have to redo them each time.

The screen shots come from MS Word 2011 for Macintosh but, depending upon which of the many versions of Word you're using, yours should prove similar.

Paragraphs

StyleMicrosoft Word defaults to a style sheet called Normal. Through use, this generalized template can change over time. If your nine-year-old daughter creates notes for her special friends, you may end up with 18-point lavender Nuptials Script as your new setting. Even if that doesn't happen, Microsoft's Normal style isn't suitable for submission to editors; at the very least indentation and double-spacing won't be set.

To create your new style settings, find the Style dialogue box. The two most recent versions of MS Word for Windows are exceptionally obnoxious– I know at least one editor who still uses MS Word 2003 and doesn't plan migrating any time soon. If you're using MS Word 2007 or 2010, check under that little gear icon for the Format menu and then look for Style. Macintosh users will see the Format menu where it's always been and can select Style from that. Click New.
style: paragraphWe could use Normal style (not the same as Normal template– see what I mean?) but let's set a style specifically for the body of manuscripts. Call it 'paragraph' and type that in. Set the font to Times or Times New Roman unless your editor requests Courier. Professionals recommend 10- to 12-point as a standard type size. 10-point saves paper if you're writing a novel, 12-point saves your editor's eyes. If you're submitting electronically, by all means give your editor a break.

We've chosen 'paragraph' as our main formatting name, but you may want to create particular styles in the course of your novel, styles such as 'eMail' or 'telegram' or even 'suicide note'.
Format submenu: paragraphNote the Format submenu (which is not the same as the hi-level Format menu we used to navigate here) in the lower left corner. Select Paragraph, which we'll use to set block formatting.
paragraph info 1Set the alignment to Left, the line spacing to Double, and then set the indentation to your editor's demands. In the US, that will likely be between a quarter and half inch; in the rest of the world, set the indentation to 1cm (which, at .39 inch also works as a good in-between setting for the USA).
paragraph info 2At the top, click on the Line and Page Breaks button. Turn all those settings off, which helps editors estimate how much space your article will take.

Click Okay and Apply, and if you wish, save your work as a template, say, My Novel.dot.

Chapter and Verse

My friend, Claire, sent me her novel where she'd carefully (and manually) numbered each chapter, but chapter 17 appeared twice and another two may have been out of order. Like page numbering, MS Word will automatically number your chapters– even renumber them when you add chapters in the middle– if you set up your styles correctly. Here's how to do that.

style numbering As outlined above, to bring up the Style dialogue box, locate the Format menu, select Style, and click on New again. Name this new style 'chapter' and set the 'Style Type', 'Style Based On', and 'Style for Following Paragraph' to 'paragraph'. In other words, you're piggy-backing your 'chapter' style on your previous 'paragraph' style to get the correct font, size, and double-spacing.
paragraph info 3 As above, click Paragraph in the Format submenu, but this time set the indentation back to 0. Set the 'Outline Level' to Level 1; this is where the magic starts to happen. Click Okay.
paragraph info 4 As before, click on the Line and Page Breaks button. Turn on 'Keep with Next' and 'Keep Lines Together'. Click Okay.
Format submenu: numberingOpen the Format submenu again and this time select Numbering…
numbering menu 1 You'll see a dialogue box titled something like 'Bullets and Numbering', which allows you to set up lists, but also controls outlines. If you select 'Outline Numbered', you may notice a thumbnail preview that has 'Chapter' in it, which can save us time. Select it and then click Customize.
numbering menu 2 You shouldn't have to do much other than check settings, which should look similar to that shown here. You may click the Font button to confirm that we're indeed using bold Times. When satisfied, click Okay (once), Okay (again), and Close (or Apply if you happen to have the cursor positioned where you want a Chapter heading).
chapter 0 Anytime you wish to create a new chapter, position the cursor at your chosen location. Then from the 'chapter' setting in your Styles button bar or from the Format > Styles > chapter menus, select chapter and congratulate yourself when the appropriately numbered chapter falls into place. Because we instructed the 'chapter' style that you wished to follow on with the 'paragraph' style, you should be find your everything in place to continue writing.
chapter 1 Enhance your template with your by-line and the heading as discussed last week. Save the template when you're satisfied.

Now you're set to crank out that next award-winning novel or short story. Good luck!

21 July 2012

On the Road Again



by John M. Floyd


Last weekend was a little unusual.  I didn't mow the lawn, I didn't doze off in the backyard swing, I didn't attend a sporting event that included our four-year-old grandson, and I didn't watch a single Netflix movie.  What did I do?  Well, I think you'll be proud of me: I went to a writers' conference.

The truth is, I've never been particularly fond of conferences.  There are exceptions--I've thoroughly enjoyed the Bouchercons I've attended, and I'm planning to go to this year's event also, in Cleveland--but in general I've viewed most writers' conferences in the same way that I viewed sales meetings in my business days: they were a nice way to get together and have refreshments and see everybody, but they didn't often accomplish a whole lot.  All in all, I'd rather be working than talking about working, and I'd rather be writing than talking about writing.  Besides, literary conferences are usually far-flung, and I'm no longer enthused about the idea of traveling.  The half-zillion miles I logged with the Air Force and IBM have made me perfectly content to stay within my own zip code.

But I've decided I might've been a little too hasty.  The conference I attended on July 13th, 14th, and 15th has made me rethink my position on the matter.

Hop along to Cassity

About six months ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to be one of five "featured authors" at the second annual Turner Cassity Literary Festival this past weekend.  Sponsored by the local Cultural Arts Center, the three-day festival is a gathering of writers and readers from all over the southeast and beyond, held in a rambling century-old home on tree-lined Campbellton Street in Douglasville, Georgia.


My wife Carolyn and I left home early last Friday (the 13th!?) to drive the four hundred miles to Douglasville, a small town about twenty miles west of Atlanta.  The weather wasn't the best--we were greeted with the same kind of afternoon/evening thunderstorms we had left behind in Mississippi, and even when it wasn't raining the humidity made us feel right at home--but it was a great weekend anyway.  The food was good (and plentiful), the accommodations comfortable (and conveniently located), the conference site beautiful (and appropriately "literary"), the people friendly (and smart), and the subject matter . . . well, the subject matter involved what you might expect: an appreciation of the writing of others and the improvement of your own.

The unusual suspects

The guest lineup of authors consisted of three poets (Dan Veach, Annmarie Lockhart, and Alice Lovelace), one novelist (Patricia Sprinkle), and one short-story writer (guess who).  Each of us taught two ninety-minute workshops and held individual critique sessions on Saturday, and then participated in readings and signings and Q&A's on Sunday.

I knew I would have a good time with Patti Sprinkle because we think the same way, she and I.  Not only do we both write fiction, we both write mystery fiction, and we had already swapped a number of e-mails over the years.  I wasn't so sure about the poets.  (As I think I've mentioned before, both here and at Criminal Brief, I'm not a poet and I noet.)  But I was pleased to find that I liked the poets and their work.  Dan Veach, I discovered, is not only a talented writer and illustrator, he's the editor of Atlanta Review--and the two ladies are gifted poets as well as outstanding speakers; Annmarie delivered the kickoff speech and Alice the closing address.  Both presentations gave me goosebumps . . . and remember, I'm too uncouth even to understand most contemporary poetry, much less enjoy it.

Friends and countrymen

On the first of our three rainy nights in Georgia, I found out that one of the attendees--actually, the wife of the head fred--had graduated a year behind me in high school, back in Kosciusko, Mississippi.  (Tell me it's not a small world, after all.)  I hadn't seen her in more than forty years, and after we caught up on which of our classmates were still alive or in rehab or out on parole, she and my wife hit it off and spent much of the conference talking about everything from grandchildren to politics to quilting projects.  I also met some delightful and interesting "aspiring" writers, and began what I hope will be longtime friendships.

When Carolyn and I finally arrived back home Monday afternoon, I told her the same thing I mentioned to you at the beginning of this column: I now have a different view of that weird phenomenon we call writers' conferences.  I still think it's more fun to just sit down and write--no question about that--but now and then, if the time's right and the stars are aligned correctly . . . it's also fun just to talk about writing.

I'm hoping they'll invite me again.

A word to the wordsmiths . . .

What are some of your favorite writers' conferences?  Which, if any, do you attend regularly?  Do you choose conferences based mostly on genre?  Location?  Cost?  Featured speakers?

Also, who's planning to go to this year's Bouchercon?

Save a seat for me.





19 July 2012

Medical Genetics


by Eve Fisher

One of my many strange jobs was at a Medical Genetics Lab in the 80's.  It was your typical lab:  clean but shabby, hard-edged, hard-used.  The whole place reeked of what I called a "wrong smell" - which was basically amniotic fluid and chemicals.  Light came through glazed windows.  The samples came in bagged or bottled and sealed.  The results went out in plain brown envelopes.  The lab did buccal smears (cheek swabs) for babies, blood tests for children and adults, amniocenteses for pregnant women. 

The technicians would take the samples and distill them down to that one little drop that went under the electron microscope.  The next day I’d be handed a blurry 8 1/2 by 11 photograph, full of chromosomes no naked eye could ever, would ever see, transformed into inch-long fuzzy banded crosslets, tumbled and curled and overlaying one another like sleeping puppies.  My job was to sort them out.

I got to know those chromosomes really well.  Me and my trusty scissors untangled 9s from 4s, 18s from 21s, and set them in neat ordered pairs for the first time in their existence.  At first, like every Other, they all looked alike to me, but time and use and my own fancy gave them personalities.  The first five sets were large and strong and unmistakable -- any flaw in them and there would have been no being to be tested.  6 through 12 were like the dancing men of Sherlock Holmes:  jaunty, poised, often with one foot kicked up in dance or play.  16 through 20 were smaller but just as playful, children learning at their parents’ knees.  13 through 15 were Hopi women, with their looped hair risen above long blankets, or nuns in banded shawls; an elemental female image.  And then the mysterious, smaller shrouded shes, 21 and 22, solid, dark, impenetrable, unpitying, even when you winced with pain, even when you cried as you found a third come to join their pair, or one so damaged that nothing good could come...


When I found a trisomy or a monosomy or any other abnormality, I took it to the lab director.  She would inspect my work carefully, assuming - usually correctly - that I had made a mistake.  But when I hadn’t, the whole lab went into panic, running and re-running the test.  When the results were certain, the phone call was made to the patient’s doctor and the sealed plain brown envelope, stuffed with test results and interpretation, was hand-delivered to the doctor’s office.  What happened next was between the patient and her doctor, her family, her God.  We knew what the options were:  we made no recommendations, rarely learned the outcomes. 

The search for sex was a lot more fun.  I found the male in microcosm elusive, mainly because the Y chromosome looks nothing like a Y.  Half the time I thought it was a scrap of something else.  I started a lot of panics until I got it through my head that what looked to me like a tiny, flat-topped, spread-legged 21 was not a trisomic sister of doom, but a Y, a HE.  My only comfort, as I sat with my scissors and a worried look, was that over in the hospital, with the baby right there in front of them, they couldn’t tell either.  Parents panicking, doctors shrugging, nurses whispering, and all waiting for me (!) to find that other damn chromosome and tell them whether it was a girl or a boy.  

This happened a lot more often than you might think.  Mother Nature does not always get it right, or perhaps she just has a very perverse sense of humor...